New Orleans renters and others who want the benefits of solar power but can’t install panels on their roofs would be able to buy into a “community solar” program under rules recently approved by a City Council committee.
But it remains to be seen if the program would bring savings to the customers it is intended to serve, and criticism of it prompted the council’s Utility Committee to keep it off this week’s council agenda.
Under the program, customers would “subscribe” to solar panels owned by Entergy New Orleans or another provider, receiving a credit on their electricity bills in return. The minimum subscription would be 1 kilowatt per customer, although low-income customers would have no minimum buy-in.
Whether that credit will be large enough to save people money ultimately depends on how much companies charge for the subscriptions. But at least initially, the program could come at a net cost to customers, said Emma Hand, one of the consultants who help the council regulate Entergy New Orleans.
“Given what we know now about the current costs to install solar, we believe that most likely there will be a net cost to subscribers,” she said.
She added that the cost could decrease in the future, as solar costs decrease, and that customers could eventually realize a savings.
The rules nonetheless drew criticism from some advocates, who said the council should force Entergy to issue higher credits on customers’ electricity bills in exchange for their subscriptions or else risk low participation in the program.
“The way customers are reimbursed is directly linked to the success of community solar,” said Renate Heurich, of 350 New Orleans, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. “If we are not reimbursing customers fairly, we are cutting off the community solar project at its knees.”
The rules the committee ultimately passed Thursday were arrived at after months of public input and research. Advisers first pitched the community program in June as a way to make solar technology more accessible in a city where most residents are renters.
Under the proposal, the program would provide a total of 55 megawatts of electricity across the city for its first three years. After three years, the council could reconsider that cap.
At least half of the 55 megawatts would be reserved for developers who give at least 30 percent of their electricity to low-income customers, or those who make less than half of the area’s median income.
Regular customers would be required to buy at least 1 kilowatt of electricity to participate. They would not be allowed to subscribe to more electricity than they typically use.
The council wants its in-house Utilities Regulatory Office to handle enforcement of the requirements, but it intends to take public comment on that part of the proposal later.
The specific credits customers get on their bills would be based on the amount of money Entergy would normally have spent to provide traditional electricity but that it avoided because of a customer’s solar use. However, the council’s advisers could not say whether customers would see a savings and in fact estimated they would initially take a loss.
They said forcing Entergy to issue higher bill credits, as critics demanded, could mean more costs for customers who are not in the program.
Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who chairs the Utility Committee, nonetheless called the critics’ complaints “valid” and said the proposed rules would not go on the agenda for Thursday’s full council meeting.
But she said the rules are a starting point, not the end, for community solar in the city and can be improved upon with time.
“I’m not going to just sit back and say, ‘Let’s just wait for somebody to come up with the perfect program,’ and be sitting here for years, still doing nothing,” Moreno said.
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